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William Hazlitt (1778-1830) is one of the great masters of English prose style. He is a major literary critic and radical polemicist whose intellect is both analytical and sensuously particular. Keats worshipped him, and his poems and letters are shaped by Hazlitt's influence - his sentences are like a 'whale's back in the sea of prose,' Keats commented. He was born in Maidstone, Kent, the son of an Irish Unitarian minister. His mother, Grace Loftus, was from an English dissenting family who were friendly with Godwin's family, so Hazlitt's writings draw strongly on the culture of radical dissent in Britain and Ireland. His family were devoted supporters of the Volunteer Movement in Ireland, where they lived for some years. They also supported the American Revolution and spent some years in the new republic before returning to England. Hazlitt never wavered in his commitment to the values of the French Revolution and remained always an impoverished member of the radical intelligentsia. Hazlitt moved in advanced circles in London - he met Mary Wollstonecraft, was friendly with Godwin, revered Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose work he continued to praise even after they broke with him over his unwavering support for Napoleon. He attacked Southey vehemently, as he attacked Wordsworth and Coleridge for their reactionary politics, but he remained always disinterested in his critical outlook - he was capable of praising writers with whose views he disagreed and had a lifelong attachment to Burke's prose (he regarded Reflections on the Revolution in France as a masterpiece of polemic). His own prose communicates the deep joy of the critical act as a form of inspired creativity. He hates monarchy, despises aristocracy, and makes his prose sing of liberty, but he is never narrowly partisan. His prose rings with courageous expressions of principle and glistens with brilliant passages of critical commentary and analysis. A supremely gifted drama critic who made the reputation of Edmund Kean, an extraordinarily intelligent journalist who invented the newspaper profile, Hazlitt turned criticism into art form. Many of his essays are like conversation poems - witty, profound and eagerly alive to the surfaces of the work of art he is appreciating. No study of the Romantic movement can be complete without a reading of his essays. For too long he has been regarded as a marginal figure, instead of being seen as the supreme genius of Romantic prose. A radical republican, like Milton, he possessed an epic imagination which he chose to embody in an eloquent stream of reviews and critical essays.
Source: Penguin Web Site (http://www.penguin.co.uk/wop%5Fauthor%5Fnew/1220.htm). Accessed May 4th 1998.
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